Holding the UN’s annual climate change talks inside a vast football stadium has been a gift to the headline writers.They were already licking their lips at the thought of yet another year of delay, procrastination and blocking by countries keen to avoid acting decisively to address the greatest environmental crisis of our age.
“Goalless draw”, “sick as a parrot”, “into extra time”, “foul play” – the clichés roll effortless off the tongue. But I’m in Warsaw this week to join with my international colleagues at WWF in a collective, determined effort – along with thousands of other members of civil society – to press our political leaders to shun such stereotypical low expectations and, instead, insist that they don’t forget their intergenerational responsibilities. After all, they might be our leaders today, but we will all have to live with the consequences of their choices tomorrow and beyond.
We are here in Poland – the heartlands of Europe’s coal industry – to remind our leaders of the significance of the decisions they take over the next two years in the run-up to, and including, the decisive climate negotiations in late 2015. These will have far-reaching implications in the decades ahead both for the human population of our planet, and also the myriad of other precious species it hosts.
As scientists all over the world repeatedly keep telling us the latest such occasion was in September, upon the publication of the IPCC’s latest six-years-in-the-making assessment report. If we are to avoid the most devastating impacts of a warming world, we must urgently and decisively turn our backs on fossil fuels. This means turning the tanker before the end of this decade.
If we don’t, we face a future world where we either have to adapt – or succumb – to further heat waves, flooding, intense storms and sea level rise. The decisions taken here in Warsaw this week and in the run-up to the Paris talks in 2015, will directly determine whether the Arctic’s summer sea ice vanishes, the oceans continue to acidify, or rainforests suffer dieback.
The impacts of climate change on food production and water availability are – of course – already being felt by millions of people across the planet – a trend that is predicted to increase.
The temptation when considering climate change is to take a short-term ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ stance. Some of us are still in a position to be able to cover our eyes and ears and kid ourselves that it’s not happening, but we believe this is an extraordinarily risky and profoundly irresponsible strategy to adopt. Tackling climate change is not only the right thing to do morally – we must surely act both for ourselves and future generations when presented with such overwhelming evidence – but it is the smart thing to do.
By investing now in more energy efficiency measures and in renewable energy infrastructure, we will not just greatly reduce the carbon emissions that are destabilising our planet’s climate, but we will, over time, also enjoy important co-benefits such as energy security, improved respiratory health and lower energy bills.
Climate change is even likely to impact negatively on our financial investments, such as pension funds. As the cost of emitting carbon dioxide gets increasingly absorbed into our economies in the years ahead, so the most polluting sources of energy – coal and oil – will see their prices escalate further. Any pension fund heavily invested in fossil fuels risks being depleted by such “stranded assets”. The financial services sector will eventually realise that the vast fossil fuel reserves on its books are next-to-worthless when they no longer have the social license – or the lucrative return – to keep digging them up out of the ground.
It has been reassuring to see in recent months a fast increasing number of investors starting to “do the maths” on this important but hitherto ignored point.
Ed Davey’s announcement at the COP of the UK Government’s withdrawal of support for investment in coal is another boost for the momentum towards a sustainable energy system. But we must never forget that climate change is also a matter of ever-pressing social justice and not simply numbers on balance sheets.
The team here in Warsaw have expressed continued solidarity for our colleagues in the Philippines who have been gravely affected by the devastation and loss of life caused by Typhoon Haiyan. When intermittent communication links have allowed, we have huddled round laptops to listen collectively to their testimony.
Even before Haiyan struck the Philippines so brutally, we were already determined to press home in Warsaw the need to set up a dedicated system within the UN climate negotiations process for dealing with “Loss and Damage”. This is the term used to describe the sad reality that some people will never be able to “adapt” to climate change, and will instead lose their livelihoods, houses, ecosystems, biodiversity, homelands and – in the most extreme cases – even their lives.
It would be a grave injustice if the plight of such people was ignored by the richest most polluting nations on our planet. As our Filipino colleague Rafael Senga told all of the team here in Poland last week in the aftermath of Haiyan:
“The farmers that once grew rice, coconuts, sugar cane and bananas are now abandoning their fields and migrating to the cities. These storms are really causing significant loss and damage to our economy.”
Hearing the words of Rafael in the Philippines made us even more determined to press as hard as possible here in Warsaw for a meaningful, just and lasting international deal on climate change.
To return to the footballing clichés “we’re going to give it our all.”